Light and shadows: The music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg

A composer for whom art after Auschwitz was not only possible. It was the only antidote to life after Auschwitz.

The Boston Globe, July 19, 2014


“Much has fallen silent, many people have left,” the poem begins. “But songs have remained and days have remained. This truth has remained: You and I are alone. . . . My heart is completely open, like the surface of a river. If you want to see it, you may.”

The verse belongs to the Russian poet Alexander Blok, but the qualities of its glow might also describe one of the many musical voices of Mieczyslaw Weinberg: solitary, wistful, unguarded, beaming.

Weinberg (1919-1996) is surely the most fascinating Soviet-era composer that most Western listeners, until a decade ago, had never heard of. He chose this Blok poem for a song cycle called “Beyond the Border of Past Days,” a title that also hints at the forces of memory that shaped Weinberg’s own life and his almost surreally prolific career writing music in the shadow of catastrophe.

Weinberg, whose Holocaust-themed opera, “The Passenger,” just received its New York premiere, lived a life buffeted by the winds of a dark century. He was born into a Polish-Jewish family in Warsaw. Both of his grandfathers and two of his great-grandfathers had been murdered in a pogrom on Easter Sunday in 1903. The rest of his own nuclear family — his mother, his father, and his sister — were later murdered by the Nazis.

Weinberg escaped by himself and fled east in 1939 to the Soviet Union, arriving at age 20. He was given a new name (Mieczyslaw became Moisey), and began a new chapter of his life, one of startling accomplishment. He studied composition with a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, he married the daughter of the legendary Jewish actor and director Solomon Mikhoels, and he settled in Moscow with help from Dmitri Shostakovich, a musical idol who became a close friend and artistic fellow traveler.

Weinberg’s own brutal trials, however, continued in the Soviet Union. His father-in-law, Mikhoels, was notoriously murdered by Stalin’s operatives in 1948, and for the next five years, Weinberg himself was under intense state surveillance. The long-anticipated knock at the door came in 1953, and he was imprisoned for 11 weeks, saved from execution perhaps only by the fact that Stalin died one month later.

Weinberg went on to outlive not only Stalin and Hitler, but the Soviet Union itself. Remarkably, as the scholar David Fanning conveys in his biography, the composer never saw himself as a victim, though along the way Weinberg did come to feel that it was, in his own words, “impossible to repay the debt” he had incurred through the simple, mind-warping fact of his own survival. He seemed to compose music almost penitentially — he once called it “creative hard labor” — to atone, to memorialize, to find sense in a world in which there was none to be found. And he composed constantly. The ultimate results were seven operas, 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, six concertos, and over two dozen sonatas, as well as ballets, rhapsodies, and more.

Dipping into Weinberg’s catalog is a heady and strange experience. At first blush, the music’s indebtedness to Shostakovich can feel glaringly obvious. But the more closely you listen, the more individual, and at times powerfully raw, his voice becomes. You come to realize that the lines of influence between the two composers ran in both directions.

Jewish folk materials appear in some of Weinberg’s music, but they are only one among the composer’s many guises. The Symphony No. 10, to name just one piece recently recorded by the violinist Gidon Kremer and his ensemble, is a sui generis work of lapel-grabbing intensity and riveting dramatic force, marked by strenuous dissonances and pools of eerie calm, with opening chords that call to mind Tchaikovsky’s C major Serenade in a shattered mirror. The Violin Concerto bolts out of the gate with an angular virtuosity that recalls Shostakovich, but with an itinerary all its own. The Quartet No. 6 is an aggressive tour de force. The Quartet No. 7 is by contrast deeply reflective in tone, full of music that seems to look out onto the world from afar, beginning with an adagio of wise and gentle radiance.

Of course there are peaks and dips, but after a bit of time spent wandering among Weinberg’s musical estate, you start to wonder how art with this degree of conviction and quality could simply vanish as it did. Fanning’s account fills out the story. During the 1950s and ’60s, the leading Russian soloists of the day took up Weinberg’s works, including David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Emil Gilels. Shostakovich also promoted his music widely. But Weinberg never seems to have done much to promote himself. He also harbored a deep ambivalence toward the state-sponsored Composer’s Union, and for long periods supported himself outside of the system by writing film scores, cartoon scores, and even circus music.

Since his music was of little use to the Soviet propaganda machine, it was not publicized outside the country. In 1975 came the death of Shostakovich, not only a great personal supporter but the prime standard-bearer for Weinberg’s own stylistic breed of modern music: communicative to a wider public, skeptical of avant-garde provocation for its own sake, yet also possessed of its own private expressive ambitions as separate from the demands of the State.

Suddenly Weinberg found himself lagging far behind the rising generation of post-Shostakovich radicals, composers such as Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, and Edison Denisov. By the 1980s performances of Weinberg’s works were in steep decline. By the 1990s he was practically a living ghost. “As before,” wrote the composer Alexander Chaykovsky in 1992, “Weinberg somehow does not exist for Soviet music.”

Yet it would not be long before his star began to rise, largely on the basis of new recordings that began to arrive in the mid-1990s and just keep coming unabated. There have been at least four new albums devoted to his symphonies this year alone, and the Danel Quartet has just completed its excellent six-volume survey of his complete quartets, issued as a set this spring.

A critical level of curiosity about Weinberg’s art seems to have been reached — this music is not going away again — though his output is so large it will require time to take its full measure, to place it sensibly in the context of his own era and ours. For now, at the very least, to listen to Weinberg’s music against the backdrop of his biography is to encounter not only a compelling musical voice but also a fierce rejoinder to Adorno’s famous dictum against writing poetry after the Holocaust. Clearly for Weinberg art after Auschwitz was not only possible; it was the only antidote to life after Auschwitz.

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Life after — and inside of — Auschwitz was in fact the subject of Weinberg’s first opera, “The Passenger,” completed in 1968. Its first staged production, directed by David Pountney, arrived earlier this year at the Houston Grand Opera, whose forces gave the work its New York premiere this month at the Park Avenue Armory (co-presented by the Lincoln Center Festival and the Armory).

Weinberg believed this opera to be his finest work. Its libretto, by Alexander Medvedev, was based on a 1962 novel by the Polish Catholic writer Zofia Posmysz, who had herself been interned in Auschwitz, where most of the opera’s action takes place. Its narrative framing, however, makes for unexpected drama, in part because it is viewed not through the lens of a victim but of a perpetrator, grappling with her deeds years later.

The first act opens with a German couple, Walter and Liese, aboard an ocean liner in the 1960s, bound for a new life in Brazil, where Walter has been appointed to a diplomatic post for the West German government. On the ship’s deck, Liese glimpses a familiar face, and the past begins flooding in like seawater after a breach. She confesses to her husband that she had been a guard at Auschwitz, and that she fears the woman she has just spotted on deck is one of her former prisoners. Walter’s anguished first response, we note, is that his diplomatic career will be ruined. Liese meanwhile is carried back into the domain of memories, and much of the remainder of the opera plays out in flashbacks to Liese’s time in the camp, ingeniously staged in a hellish underworld directly below the brightly lit, antiseptically cheerful deck of the ocean liner.

We soon meet Marta, the woman Liese believes she has glimpsed, as a Polish prisoner two decades earlier, and the grim life of the camp rises up before our eyes. We watch inmates lament their fate, pray to Jesus, and defend each other from the brutal guards. A Russian prisoner sings of missing home. Marta has a reunion with her fiance, Tadeusz.

The opera’s climax is set up when Tadeusz, a violinist, is ordered to perform a tawdry waltz, the favorite tune of the camp commandant. He agrees but at the last minute switches the program, confronting his captor with the serrated chords of Bach’s grand D minor Chaconne. The instruments of Weinberg’s orchestra leap into the fray, joining the Chaconne in progress as if defending one of their own. We are given a few moments to savor this musical mutiny before the concert is stopped, the violin is smashed, and Tadeusz is taken away. At the end, Marta is left alone to lament her fate.

Weinberg’s score is a masterful mix of styles, by turns expressionistic, sarcastic, and at times purposefully banal, but the piece nonetheless sits uneasily with contemporary sensibilities regarding the Holocaust and its artistic representation. Pountney in a program note wisely calls the opera a time capsule. And it is just that: essentially, a work of 1960s Polish Holocaust art. As such it also underscores the ways in which national memory of the Holocaust varied widely from country to country. In this Polish perspective, we are far from the camps of “Schindler’s List,” most notably in the fact that this Auschwitz is not even principally a place for Jews. Marta is in fact a non-Jewish Pole, and we meet five other prisoners of varying nationalities before we encounter Hannah, a minor character, whose uniform is marked by a star of David.

The Soviets, too, had their preferred narratives of commemoration, and “The Passenger” did not conform to them, as it was apparently deemed insufficiently reflective of Russian suffering in the war. The work’s only production during Weinberg’s lifetime — at the Bolshoi Theatre — was scuttled before its first performance. (A similar fate almost befell Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony, for the same reasons.) The opera had to wait until 2010 for its staged premiere, which took place at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.

The work’s time-capsule status comes through, too, in the naive directness of its operatic depictions of camp life. The early 1960s were after all a span of first-time reckonings with the enormity — and sheer facticity — of the Holocaust. The Eichmann trial was taking place in Jerusalem, and the Polish government, having preserved Auschwitz as “a memorial to the martyrdom of the Polish nation and other peoples,” had set up a committee to design the site’s very first monument.

Fast-forward a half-century to our own memory-saturated moment, in which sophisticated and allusive works like Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” still set the standards for Holocaust memorial art, and one feels more than slightly uneasy watching opera singers portraying concentration camp prisoners in striped uniforms belting out heartfelt arias about their lives in the barracks. We are by now attuned to the uncomfortable ways that scenes like this aestheticize victims’ suffering. And Bach’s music was of course coopted by the Nazis just as thoroughly as that of the other great German composers; one could easily imagine a scenario in which a commandant actually requests the Chaconne.

But on a still more basic level, moments like Tadeusz’s climactic musical rebellion convey a Romantic and fundamentally false idea: that each prisoner could actively choose whether or not to preserve his own personal dignity in Auschwitz. The camp was, rather, a system designed with ruthless efficiency for a single purpose, as summarized by Primo Levi: “the demolition of a man.”

For all of these reasons, I suspect “The Passenger” will retain a respected place as a period work of power and fascination, created by artists whose lives were directly impacted by the tragedy they depict. But for now, Weinberg’s reputation will continue to grow through separate channels, via his chamber works and orchestral music, of which we will be hearing more and more.

Prior to the opera, I attended a performance at the Armory by the ARC Ensemble, one of the earliest groups to champion Weinberg’s chamber music. It featured a searing account of the composer’s Piano Trio of 1945, a visceral and harrowing work that is clearly its own memorial without words. The same concert also featured the North American premiere of a song cycle titled “From the Lyrics of Baratynsky.” The opening song,“My Gift Is Poor,” tells of a rueful poet who has not found his audience. Near the end, the poet reassures himself: “And in the way I made a friend among contemporaries, I’ll find a reader in future generations.”

It’s easy to imagine these self-effacing words resonating with Weinberg when he set them in 1979, but perhaps less so if he were alive today. It’s been said that important works of music generate their own posterity. Weinberg’s may already be here.

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Sampling Weinberg – A short list of recommended recordings:

“MIECZYSLAW WEINBERG” with Gidon Kremer (violin) and Kremerata Baltica; 2 CDs, ECM. A powerful sampler that includes the Symphony No. 10.


“ON THE THRESHOLD OF HOPE” with the ARC Ensemble; Sony Masterworks.

“THE PASSENGER”; NEOS. Blu-ray disc of the David Pountney production, filmed at the Bregenz Festival.

“RUSSIAN LIVE RECORDINGS FROM THE 1960S” with Weinberg [listed here as Vainberg] (piano), Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), and David Oistrakh (violin); Melodiya. Weinberg was a fine pianist, though recordings are hard to find. This one, out of print but obtainable, captures a performance, in starry company, of the world premiere of Shostakovich’s Blok Romances.


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This article was published in the print edition of the Boston Globe  on July 19, 2014 under the headline “Weinberg’s moment.” Photo credit for associated image: Bregenzer Festpiele / Privatarchiv Olga Rachalskaya.